Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
IN 1981, then General Secretary of the Congress Party Rajiv Ratna Birjees Gandhi (who was to become Prime Minister in 1984) visited Kerala. Because this was the home state of this columnist, Rajiv asked him to accompany him while he toured the state. On learning that the only surviving son of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was to visit Thrissur, the picturesque town that is the cultural hub of the state, this columnist advised him to visit the Guruvayur temple to give respect to the deity installed in that ancient house of worship. Arrangements were made to bring “mundu” and “veshti” (cotton robes) for Rajiv and his cousin Arun Nehru, who too went with him, as this is the preferred attire for visits to the temple. Rajiv, who was as agnostic as his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, was a bit bemused at first at the atmosphere and the rituals at the temple, but followed through in a manner that won the hearts of the millions of devotees of Lord Guruvayurappan, the presiding deity of the Guruvayur temple, which is famed for the large number of elephants used in temple rituals and on festive occasions.
After that visit to Guruvayur, Rajiv made it a point to visit temples in several other cities, and it must be said that this move of his earned him a substantial amount of goodwill among the pious, who otherwise were a bit wary of his modern ways. Rajiv was born of a Zoroastrian father and a Hindu mother, and as in other traditional societies, among Zoroastrians as well, the children take the faith of the father. As Rajiv’s father was Feroze Gandhi, this would have made him a Zoroastrian, as would have been his son Rahul. However,the Rajiv Gandhi branch of the Nehru family only bring up their mother and grandmother Indira Gandhi, never referring to Feroze Gandhi, who is the Forgotten Gandhi despite being the source of the Gandhi name by which the family is known. The Sonia Gandhi branch of the Nehru family seldom discuss their religious identities, but those who know them closely say that Sonia is a devout Catholic whose family in Italy has been a generous contributor to Catholic charities. The people of India have large hearts and minds, and would not have held it against Sonia Gandhi that she belonged to the Christian faith. Indeed, the Christian community in India has distinguished itself by numerous contributions to education and healthcare.
The “Hindu” community is comprised of thousands of strands, several of them being entirely different from each other even in the modes of worship. Similar is the case with other communities, with even the minuscle Zoroastrian community having divisions such as those between “dasturs” and others. So far as the Muslim community is concerned, with a strength exceeding 170 million across the country, it is difficult to justify the tag of “minority”. Although of course the overall position of the Muslims of the subcontinent underwent a change after the events of 1947, yet in India, across several fields of activity Muslims have distinguished themselves by their industry and talent. In India, there is a Modern, Moderate Majority of Muslims ( 4M) which is a great gift to the country.
Rahul Gandhi has followed the example of his parents in visiting temple after temple, despite being silent as to his religious affiliation. Close friends say that he too subscribes to the Catholic faith, while others say that the incoming President of the Congress Party is agnostic.
As mentioned in these columns, the December elections to the Gujarat state legislature is crucial to the future of Prime Minister Modi. A Congress victory over the BJP would come after 22 continuous years of BJP rule in the state, and would position Rahul Gandhi as a serious challenger to Modi in the 2019 national polls. Given that more than 80% of the population of Gujarat is from the Hindu community, it is obvious why Rahul Gandhi has found the time to visit temple after temple during his tours of the state. However, a register apparently signed by him has caused a political storm, because the incoming chief of the Congress Party reportedly signed the register as a “non-Hindu” in the company of Ahmed Patel, the third most powerful individual in the Congress Party after Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Months ago, Ahmed Patel fought off a challenge from the BJP to get re-elected to the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament), and ever since, has been focussing on ensuring victory for the Congress Party in Gujarat.
Taking Ahmed Patel to the Somnath Temple was clearly a gesture by Rahul Gandhi that the soft-spoken tactician from Gujarat still enjoyed his trust,despite rumours that he would be sidelined once Rahul took over from Sonia. Taking a Muslim leader with him to a Hindu temple was a clear affirmation of Rahul Gandhi’s adherence to “Nehruvian secularism”, which makes no pretence of equal treatment of all, but instead ensures a privileged position for the minorities. If Rahul Gandhi is still a Christian and a Catholic, that is not a matter to be hidden but to be celebrated, as both the faith and the sect are noteworthy for the many gifted individuals in their ranks. Rather than seek cover behind silence, Rahul Gandhi needs to openly proclaim his faith. Such candour will win him the goodwill of the people of India in a way that seeking to avoid the issue through silence will not. The BJP is asking if Rahul Gandhi is a Hindu or not. The question of whether he is or is not is irrelevant, provided Rahul is honest and transparent about his actual faith.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.